3 reasons why list articles are killing writing

There’s one thing I just don’t understand: why people love list articles so much.

It seems as if every time I scan a social media feed, there’s yet another article with a picture of a sad person on a bench, introspectively looking at the clouds. And then it’s titled something smarmy, like, “10 things every 20 something should know about dating while getting ready for the perfect marriage, while at the same time, job hunting and trying to find a career and looking for direction, meaning, and purpose in life.”

And people literally storm in digital packs to read these articles and share them with profound observations like “Amen!” “Interesting article,” or, “Listen up, people.”

Come on. Can’t we do better than this? I mean, I love that people are reading articles, sharing them, and generating dialogue. But I’m concerned with the content and form of what it is that people are reading, exchanging, and talking about: a style of writing that is the direct result of our information-hungry, impatient, and easily distracted culture. It seems as if we have less and less appreciation for what great writing has to offer: nuance, depth, breadth, ambiguity, creativity, rhetoric, satire, plot twists, unique commentary, insightful voices, rabbit trails, arguments, analogues, parallels, similes, metaphors, and… you get the idea.

So, in perhaps one of the most ironic writing maneuvers I’ve made to date, here are three reasons why I believe list articles are killing writing.

1. It’s a personal essay, not an encyclopedia

Most of these articles are riffs on the form of the personal essay, but they tend to reduce it to the form of an encyclopedia entry. This is because the primary objective in a list article is transmitting useful information. Now, this isn’t necessarily a problem, and in many circumstances it’s a positive accomplishment. But it does become problematic when an essay’s content and style is strip-mined down to mere quick facts that can be read, absorbed, and carried away with minimal effort and thought. Part of the fun and power of reading an essay is mining for the bigger points on one’s own, not having them served on a boring plate with no flourishes, accompaniments, or pizzaz.

Disagree? Order this amazing collection of essays, explore it, and see if you still disagree.

2. We’re just reading the headings and looking at the pictures, anyway…

It’s true. Most — if not all — people just skim their screens as fast as they can, and consequently, the amount of time and investment required to read and engage with an article is the same as the amount it takes do a drive by shooting: the person doing the crime are in and out before you even know the bullets have hit you. And then they’re gone, searching for their next top-10 article target.

3. You become what you read

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and our tools shape us,” Marshall McLuhan said. And I have to agree with him. The media to which we expose ourselves shape us significantly. Think about it: if all we read are look-inside-yourself articles that are all about being a better you, what does this do to our character, consciousness, and our person? It makes us a me-focused, information-driven, task-oriented, what’s-in-it-for-me kind of reader.

So, please, please, please. Let’s not become that breed of media consumer. Instead, let’s become insightful and complex readers who thoughtfully discern and demand quality in our media content. Because it’s more about the journey than the destination; more about the art than the information; more about the joy of the uncertain existential grey than the empirical black and white.

Photo (Flickr CC) by Toshihiro Gamo.